Create change by sharing stories
We want to champion empathy by helping young people to step into others’ shoes, see their side, and understand how they feel.
Empathy’s a bit like a human super-power that helps us understand each other better. The good news is that we’re not born with a fixed amount of it: it’s a skill we can learn. EmpathyLab knows that stories are a powerful tool to develop empathy because when we identify with book characters, we learn to see things from other points of view.
Discovering stories that explore different ways of life and challenges people face is easy thanks to EmpathyLab's 2020 'Read for Empathy' book collections. It’s full to the brim with diverse books for primary (Beavers and Cubs) and secondary (Scouts and Explorers) ages, all carefully selected by an expert panel to improve young people's ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Check it out below.
Here are 14 superb picture books and 2 poetry collections. They’re all perfect for reading and discussing with children aged between 4 and 11 – but no one’s ever too old for a great picture book.
Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
A story about the power of acceptance where Julian’s grandmother supports his right to be different. This book creates a space to talk about what characters are really thinking, even if they’re not saying it.
Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour
Illustrated by Daniel Egnéus
A deep, emotional story about life in a refugee camp, and how human connection can bring comfort, even in extreme circumstances.
Super Duper You by Sophy Henn
A brother writes funny, quirky messages to his younger sister about what makes her unique. This book is brilliant for sparking creative conversations about other people and how they work.
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld
Being able to listen really well is a key part of empathy. This lovely book shows us how not to listen, and how great it is when someone really pays attention. It takes a while (and a rabbit), but in the end, Taylor feels understood.
The Truth About Old People by Elina Ellis
This comic book is a celebration of empathy for the elderly. It challenges stereotypes and encourages young people to see older people in a new light.
Polonius the Pit Pony by Richard O’Neill
Illustrated by Feronia Parker Thomas
This sweet story’s all about a brave little pony who saves the day when fog threatens the livelihood of a Traveller family. It’s a great way to help young people understand this community.
It’s a No-Money Day by Kate Milner
Life below the poverty line and reliance on foodbanks are a painful reality for many families. This book deals with the subject sensitively and without stigma.
When Sadness Comes to Call by Eva Eland
Being able to recognise, name, and share emotions is a really important empathy skill. This lovely book personifies sadness, gently walking the reader through how it feels and reminding them that sadness isn’t something to be feared.
All About Feelings by Felicity Brooks and Frankie Allen
Illustrated by Mar Ferrero
This beautifully illustrated non-fiction book is a great starting point to talk about feelings, why we have them, and how we express them. It’s also full of handy prompts for activities and reflection, and is especially useful for supporting children who are finding it difficult to understand emotions.
Hopscotch in the Sky by Lucinda Jacob
Illustrated by Lauren O’Neill
This magical poetic journey takes the reader through the seasons of the year. It’s full of insights into the depths of a child’s experience of school, the natural world, friendship, and family.
The Noisy Classroom by Ieva Flamingo
Illustrated by Vivianna Maria Staņislavska | Translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini, Sara Smith and Richard O’Brien
These poems from Latvia explore the feelings of children in the noisiest class in the school. The poems explore struggles including homework, the impact of technology, and just trying to fit in. It even includes poetry prompts at the back to inspire empathy-focused writing.
The Steves by Morag Hood
Two amazingly competitive puffins (both called Steve) both want to be the best. They’ve spent ages putting each other down, but they finally get some perspective and realise how silly they’re being. This book is a great conversation starter.
Mum’s Jumper by Jayde Perkin
This is a wonderful (if tear-jerking) book about grief and eventual recovery, with a message that lasts far beyond the last page. It helps both adults and children understand the experience of children who’ve lost a parent.
I Do Not Like Books Anymore! by Daisy Hirst
So many children experience frustration with learning to read. Natalie’s journey is hilarious, and she gets there in the end. Brilliantly illustrated facial expressions are an added bonus – they’re really useful for helping children recognise emotions.
No Longer Alone by Joseph Coelho
Illustrated by Robyn Wilson-Owen
This is a sensitive exploration of the whirlwind of emotions that can come with grief. It highlights the healing power of a good listener and the importance of both space and time.
Ravi’s Roar by Tom Percival
Ravi’s anger makes him feel like a roaring tiger. This beautifully illustrated book creatively explores how anger can build up if we don’t let it out – and the impact this can have on other people and situations.
Here are 15 superb stories and 2 graphic novels to help young people immerse themselves in other people’s lives. They’re perfect for 7 to 11 year olds, but we’ve used this symbol * to show books that are more demanding reads and would suit more emotionally mature readers. It’s probably best for a grown up to read them first, to check who’s ready to read them.
The Last Human by Lee Bacon
This page-turner is all about robots that have eliminated humans because they were destroying Earth. Well, they think they’ve eliminated humans. There’s one left, a girl called Emma, who slowly connects with robot XR-035. This is a great prompt for discussing what makes us human and how to read and express emotions.
Pie in the Sky by Remi Lai
This graphic novel is all about Jingwen and the issues he faces when he moves to a new country where he doesn’t speak the language.
Me and Mrs Moon by Helen Bate
This book’s all about a child struggling to cope with her feelings as she cares for a much-loved neighbour in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Love and hope shine through the story, which has an unusual graphic comic format.
Two Sides by Polly Ho-Yen
Illustrated by Binny Talib
This book’s especially great for younger readers. It’s all about a broken friendship, and the stubbornness that gets in the way of mending things. The girls’ views are carefully handled, so there’s lots of scope for exploring emotions – including through the facial expressions in the excellent illustrations.
Check Mates by Stewart Foster
In this book, a troubled boy and his grieving grandfather find a shared passion in chess. The game helps them to understand each other and find confidence, focus and peace. This tender read’s all about love, understanding, and compassion.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds*
Research shows that identifying with strong book characters builds real-life empathy. Look no further than Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) who accidently joins the track team after his father is imprisoned for trying to murder him and his mother. Raw and real, but an ultimately uplifting tale of hope and renewal.
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian
Illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik
It’s great to see a bold, engaging Muslim character in this hilarious but poignant exploration of Omar’s world. Seeing things through his eyes helps the reader understand the impact of the ridiculous, hurtful, but almost casual prejudice some people face.
The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis
When she discovers a diary written a hundred years ago, Semira finds the friend she desperately needs. This well-written story treats oppression as a truly universal issue, with hard-hitting insights into victims’ experiences of people-trafficking and domestic violence.
Race to the Frozen North by Catherine Johnson
Illustrated by Katie Hickey
This well-researched book tells the story of an important black explorer who was written out of history. Matthew Henson was the first American to reach the North Pole, and this is his life story. This is a great chance to help young people build empathy for those experiencing prejudice.
Cloud Boy by Marcia Williams
This emotional read has an engaging diary format. It tells the story of what happens to best friends Harry and Angie when Harry’s headaches won’t go away, and contains a relative’s letters from Changi prison in the Second World War. This book is both a love letter to what has been lost and a celebration of life.
Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland
Illustrated by Sarah Horne
Every time Charlie’s stressed or worried, he changes into an animal, with really inconvenient consequences. This highly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud read is an easy way to start exploring what anxiety feels like.
No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton
Aya’s recently arrived, traumatised, from Syria. Gradually, through ballet and friendship, she begins to see she might be able to feel at home in Britain. The strong central character shows us a fresh perspective on the refugee crisis, focusing on the problems people face after they arrive.
The Afterwards by A.F. Harrold*
Illustrated by Emily Gravett
Ember and Ness are best friends, then Ness dies suddenly. This dark, comic fantasy, tells the story of Ember’s grief, and her desperate steps to get Ness back from the Afterworld. It’s both thoughtful and evocative.
Owen and the Soldier by Lisa Thompson
Illustrated by Mike Lowery
Owen and his mum are alone and struggling. When he finds a stone soldier that’s part of an old war memorial, Owen has someone to share his feelings with – but he also has to find the courage to fight for the soldier’s survival. This book may be small, but it’s full of skilful storytelling.
Captain Rosalie by Timothée de Fombelle*
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault | Translated by Sam Gordon
This heart-wrenching book is about five year old Rosalie. Her father is on the front line in the First World War, and her mother’s trying to protect her from of its impact. This harsh but superbly told story is perfect for older readers and helps them build empathy for people whose lives are rocked by war.
Flight by Vanessa Harbour
This nail-biting adventure tells the story of children who save horses in the Second World War. It’s gripping, full of strong characters, and an excellent chance to explore and understand relationships (and history).
The Great Telephone Mix-Up by Sally Nicholls
Illustrated by Sheena Dempsey
This clever early reader’s all about what happens to a village when the telephone service gets scrambled. Suddenly, everyone is suddenly forced to get closer as they take messages and understand each other’s needs. This is a great opportunity to understand how empathy can connect people.
These 17 powerful books include graphic novels, verse novels, and poetry. They’ve all been chosen to help young people aged between 11 and 16 develop real-life empathy. We’ve used this symbol * to show any that are more emotionally challenging, or have language or themes that are more suitable for older teens.
Can You See Me? by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott
We love this unusual book written by a team: an 11 year old girl and an experienced author. It offers an authentic opportunity to experience what life’s like for an autistic girl trying to navigate a neurotypical world.
Somebody Give This Heart a Pen by Sophia Thakur*
This poetry collection is both moving and mature. The poems are angry, tender, and sometimes heart-breaking. They help the reader reflect on their place in the world and their responsibilities to themselves and others.
Toffee by Sarah Crossan*
Marla has dementia and Allison has run away from home. They find hope in each other when they’re brought together by chance. This great verse novel raises important questions about how we care for each other in our communities.
Furious Thing by Jenny Downham*
In this book, a daughter who’s nearly destroyed by her father’s emotional abuse finds the strength to challenge him, saving herself and her mother. The book powerfully builds insight into the experience of survival and recovery.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds*
Illustrated by Chris Priestley
This verse novel takes place over the course of an elevator ride, following Will as he sets out to avenge his brother’s murder. Ghostly figures conjure up memories and reveal perspectives that help the reader understand Will’s lack of hope, and the choice he has to make.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta*
This glorious, life-affirming book explores the life of a mixed-race gay teenager determined to be himself. Michael’s inevitable wobbles make his character feel vibrantly real, and we rejoice in the support he has from his family and friends.
Heartstopper: Volume 1 by Alice Oseman*
This graphic novel sensitively captures the awkwardness of first love against a backdrop of homophobic bullying. Readers can really empathise with the two boys who are just trying to be true to themselves.
The Boy Who Steals Houses by G. Drews*
This raw and painful read centres around two vulnerable brothers who feel utterly rejected by society. Thankfully, empathetic strangers find a way to give the boys the security they need.
New Kid by Jerry Craft
Jordan is one of the very few black students at his new posh school, and he could hardly feel more out of place. This superbly crafted, hard-hitting graphic novel has an empathetic take on issues of race, privilege, and changing schools.
The Deepest Breath by Meg Grehan
11 year old Stevie’s deeply confused by the emotions she feels towards a girl in her class. The reader feels great empathy for her anxiety and cheers on the sensitive librarian who listens and understands. This short but magnificently written verse story is perfect for younger teenagers.
Kick the Moon by Muhammad Khan*
Illustrated by Amrit Birdi
Ilyas is 13 and trying to understand what it means to grow up as a Muslim boy in a tough community. His world is defined by gangs, intimidation, and misogyny. This book is cleverly written so the reader shares the feelings and the values that give Ilyas the courage to make a stand.
DeadEndia: The Watcher’s Test by Hamish Steele*
This graphic novel is perfect for sci-fi fans with a sense of humour. It’s set in a weird theme park where a group of ordinary teenagers fight monsters from other worlds. Funny, quirky, dark and delightful, the story encourages young people to fight for what they believe in and to care for others – no matter who or what they are.
A Story About Cancer (with a Happy Ending) by India Desjardins
Illustrated by Marianne Ferrer | Translated by Solange Ouellet
This story about cancer comes from the perspective of a 15 year old who longs for people to see beyond the illness to who she really is. The wonderful illustrations really enhance the text – and, for once, it ends on a reassuringly positive note.
Frankly in Love by David Yoon
This refreshingly honest look at prejudice, stigma, and the divisive nature of in-groups and out-groups is carefully woven into a sensitively handled love story.
A Country to Call Home edited by Lucy Popescu*
Illustrated by Chris Riddell
This high-quality anthology contains poetry and prose by some renowned writers, including Michael Morpurgo, Patrice Lawrence, Simon Armitage, and Kit de Waal. It contains powerful insights into the lives of refugees and asylum seekers and their fearful feelings about an uncertain future.
The Unexpected Find by Toby Ibbotson
William, a solitary boy, and Judy, whose father has disappeared, find themselves on a quest. In many ways, this book is like a traditional adventure story, but it has real warmth as the troubled pair find healing through love and kindness.
Jemima Small Versus the Universe by Tamsin Winter
Many readers will empathise with Jemima, whose self-esteem is knocked by constant cruel remarks about her size. The reader’s firmly on her side on as she refuses to be defined in this way.